Best & Brightest Online MBAs: Class of 2020

Arizona State’s Jessica Neumann


That doesn’t mean the Class of 2020 didn’t have its share of supporters back home. Look no further than North Carolina’s Martha Buckley. “Earning my MBA while practicing medicine and raising four children is a true highlight for me,” she notes. “I began the program as a novice in finance, marketing, economics and even Excel. The learning curve was steep! In fact, I recall welling up with tears during my first accounting exam when I looked over at my daughter who was holding a sign: “You can do it Mommy!”…Hopefully my struggles and successes can inspire others to go for it! It was hard work, but so worth it.”

For some, that value stemmed from bigger roles and higher pay. Rice University’s Mike Narvaez observes that his MBA “sent a message to my supervisors that I was able and willing to do more.” Sure enough, his bosses made him the point person on a global RFP that would make him responsible for the company’s Americas portfolio. Jessica Neumann’s employer also heeded the message. While earning her MBA at Arizona State, her reports rose from 26 to 160!

One reason for these promotions, says Martha Buckley, is that business school enabled her to better formulate and articulate the big picture. “I now understand much better the “why” behind my observations in healthcare, particularly my several years as a hospital vice president. Altruism drew most physicians into medicine, yet market forces have significantly altered how we care for our patients. By understanding how the business world works, I’m better able to devise win/win solutions for patients AND the bottom line.”


Another benefit of the MBA, say the Best & Brightest MBAs, is that they could choose electives that helped them address issues at work. In fact, many cited how coursework enabled them to immediately apply what they learn. Not only did this reinforce their learning, but also positioned them to advance their careers.

“Working full-time while going through the program allowed me to take ideas back to my job continuously,” asserts Rice University’s Heather Price. “I could get immediate feedback from my work and bring it back to my group, which allowed us to explore the ideas further and bounce additional ideas off each other. It became a positive reinforcement loop.”

The online format itself also prepared students to move forward amid adversity. Jaime Xinos actually implemented the Zoom platform at her employer after using it at the University of Illinois. As a result, the firm was already comfortable with its business continuity solution when COVID-19 hit. That wasn’t the only benefit of an online approach adds IE Business School’s Alex Hayman, an Ottawa native.

“Work happens online and you need to build and maintain relationships online. Learning to work with a globally distributed team in different time zones, cultures, industries, and ways of working is extremely valuable.”

Indiana University’s Charlie Mills


In other words, the online platform provides an unmatched flexibility. Here, students could take classes anywhere and anytime. Ada Koo, for example, was able to complete classes in 10 countries! For Heather Price, the online experience freed her to study at her own pace. In contrast, Rachel Pruitt could attend classes and read when she was at her best. Best of all says Indiana University’s Charlie Mills, online MBA students were taught by the same professors as their full-time and executive peers.

“I knew that I would not be sacrificing quality of education based on the delivery format I choose,” adds Carnegie Mellon’s Andrew Woodward. “This was the same MBA through and through.”

That was a sentiment shared by this year’s Best & Brightest. In most cases, online students met face-to-face in on-campus orientations and residencies. Their professors held office hours and they completed assignments, group projects, and tests just like every other MBA. Some even completed overseas treks together. The big difference? Students can’t hide – everyone can see what their peers are doing on screen.

“If there were a genie granting wishes, I would ask for a zapper to shock anyone multitasking or slacking off in class,” jokes Celina Rosita Tousignant. “We’re on camera, I see you texting, and it’s driving me crazy.”


While the online MBA demanded a major time commitment, it didn’t require students to change key facets of their lives. For students who’d laid down roots, the online platform enabled them to stay in their homes without re-locating. Unlike their full-time peers, they didn’t need to put their careers on hold, losing their income and momentum in the process. Instead, they simply worked their classes into their schedules. This saved Morissa Wagner Szmyt, from commuting. As a result, the North Carolina grad could “eat dinner with my family, then walk downstairs to my home office for class.” The format also provided a cushion for hectic lifestyles and unwelcome changes.

“I was able to continue my coursework and join class while traveling, working, volunteering, caring for my family, being a foster parent, and even winning my battle against breast cancer,” recalls USC Marshall’s Cari G. Lim. “Life definitely changes when working on an MBA, so I really appreciated the benefit of an online program that enabled me to not have to put my life on hold in order to earn a degree.”

University of Delaware’s Jeffrey C. Teixeira

The diversity of an online MBA program – which isn’t bound by geography – was an added bonus, adds Martha Buckley. “The tremendous depth and breadth of background, thought, and professions helped me see the world and myself through a clearer, broader lens. Working through cases alongside engineers, fighter pilots, non-profit leaders, and finance managers was incredible. My classmates lived in Hong Kong, California, Germany, and Japan, just to name a few. We referenced our industries, shared stories of success and failure, lent a hand on homework, and kept each other buoyed through the highs and lows.”


The online platform also expanded access for online MBA students. Jeffrey C. Teixeira notes that the online discussion boards made it easy for everyone to ask questions and share ideas. That access extended to faculty, says Auburn University’s Joshua Jones, who notes that his classmates were able to speak with faculty even more than they could as undergrads.

“The virtual classroom removes barriers between professors and students,” asserts IE Business School’s Florence Williams. “I often left undergraduate courses with a question unanswered, but this never occurred in my online classes. There are no barriers to raising your hand, coming off mute, asking a question on the chat, or turning on video.”

Communication and collaboration were enhanced by a range of technology applications. At Lehigh University, for example, online MBAs used Zoom, Facetime, and Microsoft Teams according to Allison Hoch. The University of Maryland’s Vi Zenone adds Canvas, Adobe Connect, and Google products like Hangouts and Docs to the list. When students weren’t working in groups, they could rewind lectures so they could better understand confusing concepts says Jessica Neumann. While the technology has changed since the Best & Brightest were undergrads, the biggest shift has involved “identity” in the words of Celina Rosita Tousignant.

“As an average undergrad, my full-time life revolved around being a student, going to class, living in dorms, studying in the library, and socializing with my classmates. This forced perspective created a unique focus and environment in the classroom, one where we were all swimming in academia, living in hypotheticals and theories. The online experience is incredibly different insofar that our academic studies are one of many responsibilities in our lives, and we are drawing from real-life experiences for discussions. While the passion to learn is similar, the mental state and inputs are worlds apart.”


How can future online MBAs bridge this gap and maximize the return on their online MBA? One idea: set clear expectations for family, friends, and co-workers. Translation: online MBAs should clearly lay out how their academic demands will impact others. At the same time, notes Penn State’s Robert Bussey, MBAs should also carve out consistent time to devote attention to the people who matter most.

University of Illinois’ Jaime Xinos

“One thing that has helped sustain me over the past two years in this program is the understanding and support of my family,” he explains.Getting them on board and sharing the workload around the house has enabled me to make getting my MBA a top priority. One tactic I have used is to set aside one day a week [usually Wednesdays] where we can have a night together as a family. I don’t schedule team meetings and I ensure that any work I need to do is completed before or after this day. This routine has allowed me a nice pause mid-week to rest and be able to spend quality time with those that are on this journey with me.

With academics, Jaime Xinos’ advice is simple: Business school is new and uncomfortable. Embrace it. You will be introduced to new concepts, technology tools, individuals, and ways of thinking right out of the gate,” she writes. “It can be overwhelming trying to keep up and also maintaining balance within the rest of your life. Be patient with yourself as you learn how to become a student again and are exposed to courses outside your areas of expertise. Befriend, lean on, and support your classmates; they are in the same boat.”

In other words, adds Joshua Jones, don’t get intimidated. The start may be rocky for most, but stick it out. The rewards only increase as students go along. “Everyone processes in different ways and so there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer to how to make it through an MBA curriculum. Instead, find what works for you. Some people must touch the material every day (and for some classes, this is necessary) and some like to knock everything out on a weekend; however, both lead to the same result. Flexibility is usually why someone chooses an online MBA program, so take advantage of it.”

Go to next page to access in-depth profiles for over 50 Best & Brightest Online MBAs.




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